“We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea…We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience. Or at least we do for a while.” – Joan Didion
I dangle my legs over the top of a children’s slide, something inside of me like a dim moth wondering where to go next.
What I want: to be seen. To be seen, in concrete form. That’s where the question lies: how do we know when we’ve achieved this?
All writers want to be seen, and we project upon our characters such exaggerated ways of showing it: tall flutes of champagne they can reach for, maraschino-red cars like oyster shells in our gut. I attempt to embody my characters and find myself a useless husk, one of those desireless marionettes that people control to look average and sound average. I march into Yale brandishing the fluctuations of my vowels, my streaked hair, my flimsy little puppet show wardrobe, my capital-P Passions, only to find myself a hooked question mark next to the elm trees by Phelps Gate.
You feel like laughing each day as I attempt to embody who I think a college student should be, embarrassed at myself. At a dance, your friend who is your false date for the night tells you, “There’s an old saying. ‘You fake it till you make it.’” You’re coming from dinner with your friends, the outdoor tent of Shabbat lit up, and you’ve decided to drag all the Jonathan Edwards people you hang out with as your dates. They run back to Durfee, change into suits and ties, mingle easily in the Trumbull courtyard. He says he’s about to embarrass you and then he does.
Street, Dresden, by Edward Kirchner
Here, at night, you find yourself tugged into rooms so purple they could brew poison and thicken that miasma into velvet curtains. You find yourself walking to Brick Oven and lounging on the broken stumps of chopped wood until you feel yourself glaze over. You remember that once you sat with someone for hours, talked about Lucian, Freud, and Kirchner in their suite, their sleeves rolled up as if they were surprised to be there, arrested in motion. “The more I mixed with people, the lonelier I felt,” you read from the Notes app on your phone.
Now that you’ve named the loneliness, now that you understand it rears its head when you’re around the emptiness of unfamiliar faces, now that you’ve excavated it from its white, cobwebbed nest, it should have disintegrated like limestone. Isn’t that how it works in books? Isn’t that how older students have done it? Once you understand the lostness, you no longer feel lost––right?
There are moments of bright color that you string together like jewels. There’s the seethe of stepping into rooms where the floors are layered with smoke that rises up in the color of bruises, the scent wrapping around you until you choke. The iced coffee you have with a friend who trusts you upon first meeting, seen through the long-winded tilt of his sepia glasses. The sunshine jazz that swirls around you as you hold your half-melted cookie and settle sleepily into a spoken word workshop. The first time you hear your suitemate play the piano. You cannot hear the melodies now, the tides, but in the moment you think you will remember forever, the forcefulness of her contact with those keys like a dance, a competition, a communion. You think you can watch pianists forever.
But what about the long, blank spaces, the stretches that connect these odd spots of color, in which you lapse into nothing that can be written or recorded? What trajectory can we give our four years here, a collection of experiences that feel inherently unrelated to one another—all of our friends from separate places, all of our clubs superimposed on top of one another in broken GCal chunks? If high school was a tunnel, this is the ocean.
You crave this feeling like the one you see in the lead pianist for the Yale Symphony Orchestra’s Hope concert. He pours force into the piano, violent with longing, the orchestra swelling in response. The piano trips and puddles down flights of stairs into a Roman morning, cascades through the lens of a television. You’re enraptured, envious. When you play an instrument and immerse yourself in a piece, even for a short amount of time, that’s a narrative that you belong to.
“Everyone is a protagonist in the face of love.” A protagonist in a Chinese indie flick I saw years ago mumbled this while stretching her toes in the water, in love with a boy who did not love her back. We carve out our identities based on who we are not. I steal personality traits from people I meet. I steal interests from flyers I see on the walls, colorful enough to make me think I’m cobbling together a quilt of things that will make me special, will make me love myself.
You feel matched. You feel hollow. You feel too enough. You worry that you do not deserve comfort. You can hear, like Carson would write, bees travel through the gel of your spine.
The clouds above: “Above you, museum windows gleam October. / Above you, high gold leaves flinch in the garden,” like Szybist would write. It is cold enough. It is October. It is Fall Fest and I am wandering between the haystacks and the pumpkins, holding my iced cider and nibbling on my baked potato, sticking briefly to groups and then moving on, amazed by how awake I feel after not sleeping the previous night. Sometimes, I become ‘I’ again.
In writing, there is always something concrete that shows us when a character has achieved what they want. Hamlet’s revenge must culminate in the death of Claudius. Odysseus must reach home. Elizabeth Bennet must be married. What, concretely, am I searching for? How do I know when it has been reached? Yesterday night I came back to campus from New York City and watched the high gold leaves drift down like snow. I close my eyes and let this invisibility, this shapelessness, and this boundlessness of the ‘you’ in my mind lead me wherever it likes.